Reshaping the American Megachurch

What are the trends among the country’s largest congregations?

On the other side of the country, the 12,000-strong Northland, A Church Distributed, based in central Florida, sends volunteers to three local prisons to set up and watch Sunday sermons live with inmates.

“When they get out of jail, they are showing up with their families,” Dan Lacich, Northland’s pastor of distributed sites, says of the inmates.

Northland church members also travel to Africa and India to help train pastors to plant churches in partnership with other nonprofits.

“In the last 18 months, we have trained over 400 pastors in eastern Africa, and they have planted more than 1,000 churches,” Lacich says.

Meanwhile, the church translated its children’s ministry curriculum into a half-dozen languages and gives it away. The curriculum is now used in 27 countries, he says.

“For a long time it was ‘Northland Community Church,’ and there was just a growing sense it was way too inwardly focused,” Lacich says. “There was kind of an epiphany of, ‘We need to change,’ and then it’s been an ongoing journey.”

Likewise, Bishop says Living Hope Church experienced a similar paradigm shift from a focus on preaching the Gospel to more on living it out.

“I don’t think people look to glitz, glamour and lights; it’s not what people want right now,” he says. “The focus has shifted to, ‘Let’s be about the community.'”

Growing Through Multisite

A decade ago, many church leaders aimed to build big, beautiful buildings with thousands of seats. Many of today’s megachurches, in contrast, boast modest-sized chapels coupled with other sites that meet in rented schools, retail spaces, hotel conference rooms, and just about anywhere with four walls and some portable chairs. These multisite campuses harness technology to broadcast sermons to each location, or have a pastor of their own—or both.

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“In the last 10 years, very few sanctuaries with over 5,000 seats have been built,” Bird notes.

Ironically, the multisite movement largely spawned out of a need for more space. Megachurch leaders now use it as a way to reach new people, grow their ranks, and cater to today’s cultural preferences, says Jim Tomberlin, founder and senior strategist at MultiSite Solutions.

“The megachurch is not dying, but the super-megacampus is an unsustainable model, because all churches have a life cycle in one location,” Tomberlin says. “Multisites are not just a space strategy, they’re a growth strategy that healthy churches of all sizes can pursue.”

More than 5,000 multisite churches exist across America today, he says. With the multisite model, churches can be as big as they’re willing to grow, he adds.

“Instead of, ‘How do we get people to come to the mountain?’ it’s, ‘Let’s bring the mountain to the people,'” Tomberlin says. “Megachurches will become giga-churches.”

LifeChurch.tv, for example, welcomes an average weekend attendance of 40,000 to 50,000 at its 15 campuses across five states, says Bobby Gruenewald, pastor, innovation leader and an Outreach magazine columnist. Yet Gruenewald says the 16-year-old church, headquartered in Oklahoma, shuns the “megachurch” tag.

“We wholeheartedly reject the label of megachurch,” he says. “We view ourselves as a micro church with a mega vision. It’s a reflection of how things are changing.”